Ben Stokes is treating England’s World Cup semi-final against Australia tomorrow as the most important game of his career.
The England all-rounder is no stranger to the big stage, having turned out for his country on 166 occasions across all formats and bowled the final over of the World Twenty20 final in front of 66,000 fans in 2016. That did not go to plan, with West Indies all-rounder Carlos Brathwaite snatching an unlikely victory by clubbing Stokes for four sixes in a row but the game against the Aussies at Edgbaston will be something even bigger for the 28-year-old.
The prize on offer is a once-in-a-generation game at Lord’s and the trophy is one England have spent 44 years chasing in vain.
Asked if the game ahead was the biggest he has experienced, Stokes said: “Yes, to date. Definitely. It’s a massive occasion for us as players. Playing against Australia is a big occasion. The rivalry goes way back and we have the Ashes this summer too. Beating them is that touch better than any other team.”
“I’ve had a few days off and got out of the bubble but, when you come back to the team, you get those butterflies again.”
England have dominated the last two one-day series against Australia, winning home and away as they established a win-loss record of 10-1 before this competition. The form book counted for nothing in the group stage, though, with the visitors landing a 64-run victory.
“Losing to them at Lord’s was massively disappointing so I think there will be a bit of redemption for that, knowing we have the chance to beat them and get to that final,” added Stokes.
He is less inclined to see the game as a chance for personal redemption. Having missed England’s last Ashes defeat Down Under following his well-documented brawl in Bristol – an incident that concluded with his acquittal on a charge of affray – he was welcomed back by his team-mates.
“I don’t feel like I have to prove anything to anyone except myself,” he said.
“It opened my eyes up to a lot of things, two years ago, but I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. It’s just showing I can deliver on the biggest stage.
“Winning is the most important thing and if you can help the team out with an individual performance, that’s all that counts. People can say good things, bad things… it just won’t bother me.”
Australia have two players of their own who have had to deal with their share of public comment, David Warner and Steve Smith. The pair are still just a matter of weeks into their comebacks after year-long bans for the sandpaper scandal and have been on the end of some icy welcomes from the home fans.
Warner in particular has thrived in the circumstances, scoring three centuries and three fifties in the tournament, while Smith has managed three half-centuries.
“I have huge respect for them for performing like they have coming back, being able to block all that out,” said Stokes.
“Respect to them for dealing with on-field pressures and the crowds, while still delivering.”
Stokes has also been performing well in the tournament, averaging over 50 with the bat and under 30 with the ball. But it is his economy rate of just 4.65 – making him England’s stingiest bowler – that gives him most satisfaction.
“It’s always nice to get runs but the most pleasing thing has been my bowling,” he said.
“I had a chat with Morgs (captain Eoin Morgan) and a few others in the team to get my head around my role. Being fourth or fifth seamer, I sometimes put too much pressure on myself to influence the game.
“So I spoke to them about not trying to take wickets every ball. That’s helped offer the team more. In the last couple of years it’s probably where I have let the team down.”